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Sci-fi is starting to exploit the infectious horrors of memes

A new micro-genre of science fiction explores how mind control is at the very heart of our networked existence

Humans 6 April 2022

Bucharest, Romania - August 10, 2020: People display Qanon messages on cardboards during a political rally.; Shutterstock ID 1796596942; purchase_order: NS 09 April 2022 issue; job: Photo; client: NS; other:

In our hyper-networked world, memetic spread has become uncontrolled

Shutterstock/Mircea Moira

And Then I Woke Up

Malcolm Devlin

Tordotcom (from 12 April)


“THE quality wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for a debate,” says Spence, the narrator of Malcolm Devlin’s short but powerful horror novella And Then I Woke Up. He is describing the viral video that kicked off the zombie apocalypse. “Some people said the men were kissing, some insisted one was biting the neck of the other,” Spence recalls. “He was eating him, they said. Eating him!”

Without giving too much away, Spence is recounting these events from the rehabilitation facility where infected people are slowly reintegrated into society. But if you think I just spoiled the plot, think again. This zombie apocalypse is nothing like what you have been taught to expect by previous books and movies. Devlin has written a horror story where the “zombies” are memes.

Memes are, of course, ideas that lend themselves to jumping from one brain to another. Like that trick where someone tells you not to think about an elephant, once the image has made its way into your mind, you can’t stop the chain of events that unfolds. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme for the phenomenon in 1976, back when it was a relatively unproblematic aspect of how units of culture are transmitted through society. But in our hyper-networked world, memetic spread has become uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and there is something a little unsettling about it. From the QAnon conspiracy theory to the cheezburger cat, there is no telling what will show up in your feed or who produced it. Whether you consent or not, it will nestle between the folds of your brain and start to lay its eggs.

This sinister process is well established in neuroscience: where our expectations lead, our perceptions of reality follow. Memes can set those expectations, distorting and warping them with someone else’s narrative. Sometimes, these are harmless, like the dress that seems to be both blue and white or the audio version, yanny/laurel. Other times, they are more sinister, like the kissing men who may or may not be cannibals, or a conspiracy theory that a pizza restaurant had paedophiles in its basement. Memes can even distort what is right in front of your face.

While the events of Devlin’s book are horrifically plausible, in There is No Antimemetics Division by Sam Hughes (also known by the pseudonym qntm), perceptual expectations are managed by some of the creepiest supernatural beings imaginable. As they lurk unseen by almost everyone, they wreak havoc on an unsuspecting public, who make sense of things by inventing narratives to explain the horrors around them. An entity that creeps around collecting fingers, for example, is explained away as an unusually high rate of kitchen and carpentry accidents.

Devlin and Hughes aren’t the first to explore the power that infectious memes wield over our reality. In The City & the City, China Miéville showed readers two overlapping metropolises in which citizens are trained from birth to “unsee” any evidence of the other city and its residents.

Authors are increasingly waking to the hypnotic power of memes, a topic that is becoming more relevant by the year. These three books are a great introduction to this growing micro-genre of science fiction. I recommend all three of them to the skies. You might end up with a mild case of existential horror, but at least, unlike the stories’ protagonists, you will know what to expect.

Sally also recommends…

Sea of Tranquility

Emily St John Mandel

Picador (from 28 April)

From the fine mind that produced Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel comes another treat: a century-spanning, genre-crossing, time-travel book about the nature of reality, set in a near-future of pandemics and parallel worlds.

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